Although pleasingly alliterative, the worrisome trend of preemptively banning bills that themselves would ban or place a tax on single-use plastic shopping bags has now become law in a fourth state.
Joining Idaho, Arizona, and Missouri, Michigan is now a state where plastic shopping bags will be both abundant and readily available, free of charge, in all cities, counties and local municipalities. This includes Washtenaw County, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, where a 10-cent grocery bag fee meant to encourage reusable bag usage while also curbing waste was supposed to be instituted at the start of the new year. Instead, it's business as usual at Kroger and Meijer checkout lines given that the state ban on plastic bag bans effectively cancels out the county’s now DOA bag fee ordinance .
The ban-banning bill, which also prohibits local governments from banning or adding fees to a wide range of disposable food and beverage receptacles including Styrofoam takeout containers, passed through the Michigan state Senate 25-12 and was swiftly signed into law by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley on Dec. 29. Michigan’s embattled Republican governor, Rick Snyder, was vacationing out of state at the time.
The passage of Senate Bill 853 is a victory for the Michigan Restaurant Association, a trade group that rallied behind the effort to put the kibosh on locally imposed laws that could potentially be burdensome to disposable bag- and container-dispensing retailers. Because, really, why protect the planet from a scourge of non-biodegradable plastic waste when there’s the risk of retailers being inflicted with “added complexities” brought forth by “frivolous regulation at the local level?” Why even attempt to do the right thing when there’s the potential it could result in a short-lived headache for retailers and restaurant owners?
The numbers tell a different story
The whole matter is discouraging, particularly when considering the successes that well over 200 local governments across the country have had with laws that clamp down on single-use plastic bag and food container usage through fees or outright bans.
In Los Angeles, for example, a 10-cent fee instituted in 2011 lead to a dramatic drop in plastic bag usage at average Angeleno grocery stores: from 2.2 million (more often than not) landfill bound-bags being distributed annually to just 125,000. (Following in the progressive footsteps of Los Angeles, trailblazing San Francisco and dozens of other cities with bag bans or fees, California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on plastic bags in November 2016.) In Washington, D.C., throwaway shopping bag use plummeted with the arrival of a modest bag tax in 2010. Residents who were slow to get into the habit of bringing along reusable bags on their shopping trips and subsequently forced to fork over 5 cents per disposable bag helped to raise $150,000 in funds that were dedicated to cleanup efforts in the woefully polluted — and now comeback-bound — Anacostia River.
On that note, Michigan’s pro-business ban on bag bans is also discouraging when you consider the vast amount of plastic waste, single-use shopping bags included, that continuously stream into the state’s greatest natural resource: the Great Lakes. According to a recent study conducted by the Rochester Institute of Technology, a staggering 22 million pounds of plastic waste enter the Great Lakes each year with most of this waste inevitably littering beaches and shorelines. Roughly half of this amount, 11 million pounds, is dumped into Lake Michigan alone — that’s roughly equivalent to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools filled to the brim with empty plastic bottles of Faygo Red Pop. Lake Eerie, which also borders Michigan along with Lake Huron and Lake Superior, comes in second with 5.5 million pounds of plastic waste per year.
Allowing for city- and county-wide plastic bag bans and fees likely wouldn't put a significant dent in these troubling numbers. The physical change would be small, noticeable but small, and largely symbolic. In a perfect world, a number of Michigan towns all adopting bag bans would signaled to state lawmakers that the amount of plastic bag and container waste entering the Great Lakes requires immediate action.
While only “a few” communities across the state have been mulling plastic bag bans according to Michigan Public Radio, disappointment in the ban-blocking bill’s passage runs deep in the one place that actually moved to adopt restrictions that have now all but been squashed by the new law: Washtenaw County. County Commissioner Jennifer Eyer notes that her disappointment in state lawmakers stems from the fact that “… they’ve put the priorities of business over the concerns about the environment, and doing what’s good for the environment.”
Like in Idaho and Missouri, Michigan's ban-blocking bill didn't shut down any active bag ordinances — Washtenaw County's bag fee was killed just several days before it was set to kick off.
In Arizona, however, the state's 2015 decision to outlaw local regulations on containers and carriers of all sorts did impact one single town with a healthy and successful bag ban in place along with several communities that were on the verge of passing plastic similar ordinances. Located in the far southeast corner of the state, Bisbee, a scenic mining town with a sizable arts community, kicked off its plastic bag ban on Earth Day 2014. (It had previously introduced a voluntary bag reduction program in 2012.) Bisbee was thrust into the media spotlight earlier this summer when a Republican state senator implored Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate claims from constituents that the town, technically a charter city, was flouting state law and upholding its bag ban.
Bag ban blowback
While Michigan — and Idaho, Missouri and Arizona — stand somewhat alone in their regressive stance on bag and plastic container bans, this isn’t to say that all bag bans enacted by local governments have been wild, litter-curbing successes. A small handful of cities have even gone as far as to repeal existing bag bans.
Late last year, Chicago City Council voted to repeal its divisive plastic bag ban, effective Jan. 1, 2017, and push back the start date of a 7-cent “checkout bag tax” that was supposed to be implemented at the top of the new year until the first of February. The tax, which will apply to both paper and plastic bags, replaces a partial ban that forced retailers to do away with the typical flimsy plastic shopping bags and replace them with thicker plastic bags that were meant to be reused repeatedly by consumers. Supporters of the short-lived bag ban claim that it helped to reduce both plastic bag consumption and the amount of litter on city streets.
However, Chicago shoppers ultimately failed to fully embrace the new — and more expensive to produce — reusable plastic shopping bags. City leaders are optimistic that bringing back thin single-use plastic shopping bags, but this time with a fee, will ultimately be more effective from an environmental standpoint as well as more lucrative — 5 cents of the 7-cent checkout tax will be used to fill city coffers while the remaining amount will be kept by the businesses.
In Dallas, plastic shopping bags were never subject to an outright ban. They were, however, equipped with a 5-cent fee that existed for a an abbreviated time. In June 2015, city council members voted to repeal Dallas’ 5-month-old bag tax, claiming that the drawbacks — costs and confusion amongst retailers among them along with the belief that charging a nickel a bag would unfairly impact low-income Houston residents — outweighed the benefits of the well-intentioned scheme. A lawsuit filed by a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers against Dallas claiming that the city’s fee was in direct violation of the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act also played into the decision to do away with the bag fee.
“I was elected by the people, not the bag manufacturers," noted crestfallen council member Dwaine Carraway, following the repeal. "So we go back to being Dirty Dallas."
Meanwhile back in Michigan, bag ban-aspiring locales such as Washtenaw County will now never have an opportunity to try cleaning up their act like Dallas did in 2015. That is, unless a ban on plastic bag ban bans emerges at some point down the line. Seems unlikely but you really never know these days ....